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What Are Sullivan’s Options When Putting Top Two Lines Together?

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Pittsburgh Penguins, NHL trade, Bryan Rust

Mike Sullivan has preached the importance of versatility since he became coach of the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2015.

He puts a high value on forwards who can be equally effective on both wings (and maybe in the middle, too), as well as those who can fill in capably on lines up and down the lineup.

And being able to do both — Evan Rodrigues would be a good example — is a good way to enhance the chances of maintaining a spot in the lineup for guys who might not be guaranteed of holding onto one.

Having players with those qualities gives Sullivan flexibility when putting together line combinations and, given the current makeup of the Penguins’ roster, he and his staff should have plenty of options to mix-and-match personnel on the top two lines.

Oh, there likely are a few certainties — Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin will be the first-and second-line centers, respectively, and it’s hard to imagine that Crosby won’t have Jake Guentzel on his left side — but beyond that, Sullivan will have quite a few possibilities to consider.

Right winger Bryan Rust, for example, has meshed nicely with Crosby and Malkin. So has Rickard Rakell, who can be deployed on the right or left side.

And while Jason Zucker likely will reprise his role as the second-line left winger, Kasperi Kapanen could complicate things by creating a few more potential configurations if he lives up to his potential as a top-six talent.

“We’ve got six guys who are interchangeable, plus (Kapanen),” president of hockey operations Brian Burke said. “So we think there’s a group there that (Sullivan) can shuffle.”

Sullivan, like most coaches in today’s NHL, likes to begin with a pair of forwards who have shown chemistry — Crosby and Guentzel are a good example — and then complete the line by finding a guy whose game complements those two.

“He doesn’t like juggling lines,” Burke said. “But he doesn’t mind moving people around, either. … You get two guys who work together, and then you try the third guy. And if he’s not working, you try a different guy.”

Since the end of last season, the Penguins have re-signed four of the seven forwards who are expected to be in the top-six mix during training camp — Malkin, Rust, Rakell and Kapanen.

Rust got the most lucrative contract of any of the three wingers — his salary-cap hit will be $5,125,000 — and his six-year deal matches Rakell’s as the longest in the group.

Giving him more seasons than expected allowed the Pittsburgh Penguins to hold down his cap hit and, while Rust will be 36 when his contract expires, Burke said that the nature of his game will allow him to contribute even if his offensive skills begin to erode as his career moves along.

“Rust is our best puck-recovery guy,” he said. “When we’re on the power play and don’t score, we get the puck back from him more than anyone else. He’s a great puck-recovery player, and he can kill penalties.

“That’s why we’re not worried about the term on his contract; even if he drops down in the lineup (in future seasons), he can still kill penalties.”

That’s the kind of versatility Sullivan recognizes. And surely appreciates.

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Pete
Pete
1 month ago

So ironic that “guys like Evan Rodrigues” have the versatility and effectiveness to stay in the lineup but ERod does not.

ehasenel
ehasenel
1 month ago
Reply to  Dave Molinari

This certainly isn’t true unless EROD is holding out for more than 2m, the penguins prioritized adding size or snarl Poehling and Archibald to returning EROD. Those two certainly have less offensive upside and versatility, but bring something he doesn’t. I think Hexy has done a great job, really unbelievable that he was able to retain Malkin, Rust, Letang and Rakell…seriously no one thought that was possible. But not sure about passing on erod for the above 2

Last edited 1 month ago by ehasenel
Justin
Justin
1 month ago
Reply to  ehasenel

I definitely think E Rod is wanting more than 2 mill, I’m thinking in the 3-3.5 range and probably a bit of term. I think the whole point of bringing back Archibald was to recreate a version of the ZAR Blueger Tanev line with McGinn Blueger and Archibald if that’s the case I see what Hextall was doing other than that I would’ve rather had E Rod.

Dave Heyl
Dave Heyl
1 month ago

Dave do you think Sullivan will change his SPEED PHILOSOPHY now that age has taken its toll? I cannot see this team in any track meets with Avs , Oilers,

Vince Gori
Vince Gori
1 month ago

Will be interesting going forward. We let some serviceable players walk for new question mars. Youth is not always the answer. As much an issue cap space has been, the yearly injury bug is a major concern to me. One good trade could solve the former, no control over the latter.

Jeff Young
Jeff Young
1 month ago

“Malkin, Rust, Rakell and Kapanen” One of those four is not like the others.

Tim Curtis
Tim Curtis
1 month ago

The Penguins might just have the best 3rd line in the NHL. Their 1st and 2nd lines are highly competitive with other top level teams. If they can create a solid 4th line (they have the personnel) and get good-great goaltending, this team will be a legitimate threat for a Stanley Cup this season!

Ethan
Ethan
1 month ago

Look i might get lit up like a roman candle for this comment but cant imagine the odds being favorable of 2nd line listed above lasting long. Zucker missed most of last season, geno half, and rakkel got brained in playoffs. Not to mention any injury to first line means promotion of one of these same players to top line. I would have found someone for 2nd line that can protect skulls better than a flimsy plastic brain bucket.

Rob
Rob
1 month ago
Reply to  Ethan

Who?

Ethan
Ethan
1 month ago
Reply to  Rob

Wheeler, E Kane or Anders Lee type. Kappy or Zucker walks along with prospect like POJ or MP. Thems the breaks.

ric Jefferies
ric Jefferies
1 month ago

Scary thing is these lines were what I think gave the pens a first round knock out in the playoffs. ERod IS what the pens NEED to add flexibility to the lines. I’ve got to adjust my expectations for the new season I guess.

Bob
Bob
1 month ago
Reply to  ric Jefferies

Yeah, He was one of the best players in that final game against the Rangers in the playoffs and he had only one less total points than Malkin did in that series…

William Maloni
William Maloni
1 month ago
Reply to  Bob

He needs a job and they need some players, ergo……….

Alan Smith
1 month ago

9 exceptionally skilled offensive players is way more than most teams have! Just enjoy watching one of the best offensive teams in the NHL! Lets Go Pens!

Bry
Bry
1 month ago

Erod had a hot stretch for a while then regressed back to his norm which is pretty replaceable and ppl think its even note worthy that he’s gone? Idk why they signed Archibald but erod wouldn’t have been someone I worried about either if I was the GM.